It surprises me, and makes me a little sad, when I hear writers say they have given up on a book manuscript. Either they have an agent who has exhausted the traditional Big Five publishing houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster), or they were unable to secure an agent in the first place, so never got into the running.
Sometimes their stories are like my own. Little, Brown and Company (owned by Hachette) published my first novel, Addled, but the book did not sell well enough for a second contract. And the Big Five are all about big sales.
But they are not the only path to publication. I discovered that the literary landscape is vast and deep, populated with editors focused on finding the next best book, rather than chasing the next best seller. I am talking about small presses and university presses.
It’s true: there is little money to be made on these paths. There are rarely advances and marketing is often spotty. But many writers need publishing for academic careers. For others, it is their art, not their income, that drives them — they just want to get their work out into the world. For writers like these, who are not focused on publishing purely for monetary gain, small presses could be ideal.
Small presses broaden this world by taking risks on innovative, quirky, or controversial material, and they often seek out under-represented or marginalized authors. Some presses even favor experimental forms, while others publish only poetry, novellas, or short fiction collections, all of which the Big Five consider unprofitable.
While the money may not be big, small presses and university presses have numerous advantages.
- Less Internal Competition. Because they are smaller, small presses have fewer books in their catalogue — which means there is usually an abundance of editorial attention on every manuscript, and they can promote each book for longer.
- More Marketing Control. Authors are also generally free to set up readings and other marketing events on their own, which is something large presses control tighty.
- No Agent. A significant benefit is that you usually don’t need an agent to submit to small presses, many of which have open reading periods.
- Free Submission Periods. Many presses have free submission periods, or are always fee-free, including university presses, whose educational institutions usually don’t make them show a profit.
- Some presses have fees to help offset costs. At YesYes Books and a few others, that fee includes a book of choice from their catalog.
- Others hold contests, and these fees help fund their work. Read the small print.
- A prominent independent press like Graywolf, whose list includes Citizen by Claudia Rankine, might have a mix of open periods, contests, and agented submissions.
If a press charges an author for production costs, then that is hybrid or self-publishing. There are many legitimate hybrid and self-publishers, but be careful as there are scams out there.
Here’s the thing: read all guidelines closely.
Pay careful attention to what they publish, because each press has a particular vision. Many are non-profit and mission based.
- Bellevue Literary Press, originally conceived at Bellevue Hospital in NYC, focuses on healing, illness, and medicine. In 2009, it published The Tinkers, a meditation on mortality by Paul Harding, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, a novel that was rejected by the big houses for being too quiet.
- McFarland & Co., in North Carolina, publishes academic and scholarly works.
- Haymarket publishes social and economic justice books, including one dear to my heart, Men Explain Things to Meby Rebecca Solnit.
- Kore Press publishes literature exclusively by women and sponsors literary activism through justice programs.
- Red Hen Press focuses on outreach, such as going into L.A. schools to teach poetry. Their authors include Martha Cooley, Ellen Meeropol, and Camille Dungy.
- BOA Editions, another non-profit, donates books to senior centers, libraries, and Native American reservations.
- Beacon, founded in 1854, is one of the oldest independent presses and is associated with the Unitarian Universalist church. It recently published the bestseller White Fragility by Robin D’Angelo, a primer on how to discuss racism within white culture. Beacon also publishes poetry, most notably by Mary Oliver.
- Ashland Creek Press, which publishes environmental and animal literature (or furry lit, as Thurston Howl calls it), published my second novel, Float, a dark comedy about plastics in the ocean.
- Green Writers Press also focuses on the environment and has a literary magazine called The Hopper.
Other small presses have magazines, and that is often where they find their authors. Press 53 has Prime Number Magazine. Ecotone, associated with the University of North Carolina, is a place-based lit mag with a publishing arm, Lookout Books, known for Binocular Vision, the award-winning story collection by Edith Pearlman.
Some presses have a regional flavor like Hub City, which concentrates on the American South.
University Presses in particular help to preserve local culture by producing regional literature. They have always been important publishers of poetry as well, such as the University of Pittsburgh Press, but more and more they are accepting literary fiction and memoir.
What’s that, you say? You write true crime and no university press is going to publish that? I am here to tell you they do.
My recent book, Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s, was recently published by the University of Iowa Press, and mine is not the only one on their list.
Do you do translations? Many university presses consider it part of their mission, such as Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literary translation press. Other presses that publish translations are Autumn Hill Books and Black Lawrence Press. Dalkey Archive Press does both translations and reprints, maintaining the availability of culturally important books. One of my favorite novels is Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns, a book from the 50s reissued by Dorothy, a publishing project. Their list also has contemporary women writers, who they find through open reading periods.
Large presses publish hundreds of titles a year. A small press might put out fewer than ten, though a few manage to do more, such as Graywolf which puts out 30–35 books a year. Individually the numbers are small, but added together they are a powerhouse.
There are hundreds of small and university presses out there, each with its own specific tastes and criteria, one of which may well fit yours. Start a search at Poets & Writers, Entropy, or Duotrope. Get to know the presses. Read their books, follow their authors, and expose yourself to some of the most engaging, timely, and edgy literature out there. Be part of the broader literary conversation.